Mississippi State fans had reason to put down its cowbell Saturday night.
Picking it back up after the game was a little easier also.
In a game that saw more crowd boos than ringing violations, the 23rd-ranked Bulldogs hung on to another close 24-17 victory Saturday over an upset-minded Kentucky team.
MSU saw its consistent running game and 63-yard, fourth-quarter drive executed by junior quarterback Chris Relf as the critical aspects to its sixth-straight victory.
“When guys needed to step up, they stepped up to make big plays,” Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen said.
State officials had been dealing with an issue with the Southeastern Conference as the school informed by the conference office they will be fined for its violation of the artificial noisemaker legislation. Before the game, Mullen addressed the announced attendance of 54,168 to ask them to respect the cowbell similarly to when he spoke with State students at Newell-Grissom Gymnasium this week.
MSU athletic director Scott Stricklin was more than pleased with the fan behavior Saturday night.
“I look forward to calling the commissioner and telling him I thought we did our part,” Stricklin said. “I thought it showed a unity among our fan base. I thought it was pretty cool…that 55,000 people could coordinate their behavior in that manner.”
The victory, which was in front of the representatives from the Chick-fil-A Bowl committee, puts State (7-2, 3-2 in SEC play) one when away from matching the 2000 and 2007 squad that both finished with an eight-win season.
“I think we’ll have a lot of fans to any bowl we go to,” Stricklin said. “We’re real excited to fill up a stadium over the holidays.”
MSU ran over, around and past a weak Wildcats rush defense, which came to Starkville ranked 11th in the league in stopping opponents on the ground, for 214 yards and two touchdowns.
“They knew we were a running team,” Mullen said. “They loaded the box all night but we still ran for 200 yards, which is near our average.”
On a final drive that saw Kentucky’s offense inch closer and closer to the game-tying score, State’s defense came up with another big play as a fourth-down cornerback blitz by sophomore Corey Broomfield led to a interception by former East Webster star Johnthan Banks near the goal line to seal MSU’s seventh victory in 2010.
“We’ve been too careless with the football and we've got to create some turnovers,” Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips said. “The little things are keeping us from showing what kind of team we really have,”
With the victory, Mississippi State now has two weeks to think, heal up and get ready for a Top 25 matchup with the defending national champions when they travel to Alabama on Nov. 13.
Mississippi State scored on its first possession thanks to a 33-yard connection from Relf to sophomore receiver Brandon Heavens and West Point High star Michael Carr taking an end-around carry for 16 yards.
Junior Derek DePasquale began the game where he ended last week by booting a 33-yard field goal straight through the uprights. DePasquale, a transfer from the Colorado School of Mines, had career-high five field goals in the 29-24 victory over Alabama-Birmingham.
Relf, who had struggled in the passing game the previous two weeks, completed his first five passes of the game ending that streak with a perfectly-executed play-action fake leading to sophomore Arceto Clark to get behind all 11 Kentucky defenders for a 21-yard touchdown strike down the middle of the field. The junior signal caller finished with 190 total yards (111 passing, 79 rushing) and two total touchdowns.
The touchdown pass not only gave State a 17-7 lead in the second quarter but marked the second time the Relf-Clark combo had teamed up in the passing game.
After Mississippi State’s defense forced a Kentucky punt, Vick Ballard reintroduced himself to the Davis-Wade Stadium crowd with a 54-yard touchdown run.
The junior-college transfer from Gulf Coast Community College, who sat out last week against UAB due to a nagging ankle injury, finished with 103 on 14 carries and the one touchdown run.
Ballard is now four rushing touchdowns short of the Mississippi State school record of 16 set by Jackie Parker in 1952.
Kentucky (4-5, 1-5) took less than three minutes to answer the Bulldogs as Wildcats quarterback Mike Hartline found his multi-versatile athlete Randall Cobb for a 48-yard touchdown pass in between two MSU defenders. Hartline was able to beat the blitz called by MSU defensive coordinator Manny Diaz by finding Cobb in the exact place a State safety came on an all-out rush.
“They had a great defensive scheme tonight,” Hartline said. “As far as personnel grouping, blitzing and the different coverages I haven’t seen, they did a great job.”
The Bulldogs defense was able to force two interceptions from Hartline in the first half and UK would give the football away twice more but State would not manage any points off the turnovers.
Diaz said after the game that the pressure given to the 6-foot-6 quarterback by his multiple blitz schemes was the main factor in MSU’s takeaway advantage Saturday night.
“If we could cover the short routes, then our pressure would force them into making bad throws and I really think that’s what happened,” Diaz said. “It was a two-pronged attack and both aspects did an excellent job.”
The Davis-Wade Stadium boos were deafening at halftime over a questionable pass interference call that wiped away an interception by MSU linebacker Emmanuel Gatling and got Mullen heated at the line judge on his side of the field.
Kentucky made use of the opportunity by having sophomore Craig McIntosh drill a 33-yard field goal as the first half time expired to make it 17-10.
Mississippi State was flagged for pass interference three times during the evening (two on defense and one on offense) and each had Mullen out by the yardage numbers to yell at the head referee.
“It felt like we had a lot more than four (total) penalties,” Mullen joked after the game. “I’m going to study up on my pass interference and get that fixed.”
Kentucky tied the score on a 12-play drive that took 6:19 off the game clock and ended with Hartline finding running back Moncell Allen for only his third catch of the season on a 2-yard rollout pass.
After Kentucky’s tying score, the Bulldogs offense went into a conservative shell with three short runs up the middle that would result in a short drive and a smattering of boos from the home faithful after the third-down play.
“What we need to do is clean up the passing game,” Mullen said. “I want to have 200 yards passing as well each game. I felt like our offense was a little lethargic tonight.”
Kentucky leaves Starkville knowing they have to win two of their final three regular season games to be bowl eligible while MSU still has a mathmatically shot at the goal they started preseason camp with.
“Right now we’re just focused on making a run at Atlanta (for the SEC Championship game),” Mullen said. “That is our main focus right now.”